How We Use Water

With abundance everywhere we look, many Floridians don’t realize the direct connection between the way we use water above-ground and the aquifer underfoot – and to the springs and other natural waterways. (Photos by Andrea Cornejo.)

By Victoria Molina, Savana Morie and Chloe Bennett

As a rainstorm builds over Paynes Prairie and moves across Gainesville, it’s hard to imagine that Florida is a water-scarce state.

But that’s our paradox, says Rafael Muñoz-Carpena, professor of hydrology and water quality at the University of Florida. The state’s climate is humid-subtropical, with an average 54 inches of rainfall a year. But, “in Florida if you consider the amount of total annual precipitation in terms of local demands and distribution of that rainfall, certainly there are many cases where water is scarce,” Muñoz-Carpena says.

With abundance everywhere we look, many Floridians don’t realize the direct connection between our hoses and the aquifer underfoot – and to the springs and other natural waterways. Statewide, Floridians use about 6.4 billion gallons of freshwater every day, according to the U.S. Geological Survey, 4.1 billion of that groundwater pumped up from aquifers. In the past, agriculture drew the lion’s share of groundwater. But Florida’s population has grown so fast that public supply – the water that flows from taps and flushes toilets – now accounts for half of all groundwater pumping, followed by agriculture, then industry, according to USGS.

The problem, says Muñoz-Carpena, is that “you have two sources of demand for water that are continuously increasing in time and also space.”

Crops are often produced in Florida during the drier part of the year due to market demands. Lack of rainfall means irrigation is a must for these specialty crops. People’s water use is perhaps even more important, Muñoz-Carpena says.

Floridians use about 136 gallons of water a person, every day. More than 90 percent of that is groundwater. And more than half of that is poured on lawns, says Pierce Jones, founding director of UF’s Program for Resource Efficient Communities. “The majority of water coming to a typical Florida home is going for landscaping irrigation,” Jones says, much of it unnecessary as homeowners and developers have Florida Friendly Landscaping, progressive community designs and other options for living well with a lot less water.

The lawn issue remains pressing here in Gainesville, even as the city’s per-person and overall water use has dropped – despite population growth – about 22 percent, to 72 gallons per person. Rick Hutton, water and wastewater supervising engineer at local water supplier Gainesville Regional Utilities, attributes the decline to water-rate increases and a growing ethic for conservation.

The community still has a considerable way to go, judging by the huge range of water use – and waste – here. A report from Jones’s Program for Resource Efficient Communities found that those homes with irrigation systems use an average 358 gallons of water a day, with some subdivisions far higher. Turnberry Lakes was the highest in the report, with an average home water use of 536 gallons a day. Meanwhile anyone on their own, private well is not counted in the data.

Muñoz-Carpena says whether watering a lawn or growing a crop, it’s crucial to consider how long it takes for water to be replenished. It happens quickly in the atmosphere, but can be exceedingly slow for aquifers. “As you start tapping your groundwater resources it takes millennia to replace them to maximum values,” Muñoz-Carpena says.

Hutton says the public is increasingly aware of water issues and conservation, and so are institutions, as GRU works to use reclaimed water from its treatment plant to replenish the aquifer through novel projects such as the Sweetwater Wetlands Park.

Water consciousness, he says, seems to be flowing in the right direction.

“As you start tapping your groundwater resources it takes millennia to replace them to maximum values.” Rafael Muñoz-Carpena, professor of hydrology and water quality

GALLERY

Follow along the path of water in North Central Florida with this photo gallery by UF’s Matt Bruce
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About Project Blue Ether

WUFT News is publishing this multi-week series on water by University of Florida students, led by award-winning environmental journalist and author Cynthia Barnett, who is a visiting professor at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.